Jim McElwain knows how difficult rebuilding a program can be.
For a man who helped Nick Saban lead Alabama to two national titles, guided Fresno State to a bowl-win season, and mentored NFL quarterbacks in Oakland -- the rookie Colorado State head coach fans call "Coach Mac," however, the Rams' offensive woes are a true test of his expertise.
In sophomore and multi-game starter Garrett Grayson, he has a QB with experience under center. But CSU has been outscored by a combined 35 points in the past two contests -- including a 22-7 home decision against FCS team North Dakota State -- after beating a Colorado team that is 0-3. They rank 108th in the FBS in total offense and 110th on the ground.
When his offensive coordinator stands across the sidelines from Utah State in today's battle in Fort Collins, Colo., he'll be facing a friend.
Though oft-maligned for his reluctance to liberalize the passing game, offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin led Utah State's offense in 2011 to be the sixth-best rushing attack in the nation. In 2011, the Aggies set numerous school records, including total offense (5,945 yards), rushing yards (3,675), total points (437) and touchdowns (60). Under Baldwin, the 2009 USU offense ranked 12th in the nation with 439.3 ypg. The Aggies also were 20th in rushing offense (192.6 ypg).
Yet Baldwin is no longer part of the picture in Logan, having left the program for CSU less than three weeks after USU's appearance in the 2011 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. He and McElwain had worked together at Michigan State from 2003-05.
Rumors have circulated in Cache Valley that Baldwin wanted to pursue a job that allowed him to continue to operate a run-heavy offense while incorporating less of an aerial-downfield philosophy. Many expressed doubt it would work as well this season without bruising backs Robert Turbin and Michael Smith, both of whom are now NFL players.
USU coach Gary Andersen's comments this week focused on the fact that Baldwin "did a great job" in implementing a spread offense when he arrived in 2009 -- and the following year, when several of USU's top offensive weapons, including Turbin and current wide receiver Matt Austin, out early in the season due to injuries. He added that Baldwin did the same last season, when Turbin and Smith were joined in the backfield by a true freshman in Chuckie Keeton for most of the season.
In Fort Collins, however, Andersen knows that Baldwin's choice to join the CSU program has presented new challenges.
"I think he's still in transition trying to figure out who's playing where, and what the best offense is with the people he has," said the fourth-year USU head coach, whose teams are 5-16 on the road. "The scariest thing for me walking into this game is trying to figure out which way they're going to go. Dave will change to get his best personnel in the game. I don't think it's an advantage either way (knowing each other)."
Because McElwain's policy is that no assistant coaches are interviewed, the head coach was willing to offer sympathy to Baldwin's circumstance on Saturday.
"Any time you face your former team, that obviously holds a special bond," said McElwain. "Other than the fact that you have poured a lot of effort into (the former team), you still hope you beat them while they're playing the best football they can.
"In some ways, it's a homecoming," he added. "You face players you worked with and helped to be successful. After (the game), you will still be there, even though you have emotions that run high during the game."